On students’ moderate writing confidence



The kinds of writing-related decisions students make when they get to college are driven, in part, by how they feel about their writing. Knowing this, one thing we asked our Writing in the First students about was how confident they were in their writing ability. We did this in a number of different ways. First, on the survey that participants completed each time we met with us, we asked them to rate themselves on a scale of not “very confident” (1) to “very confident” (7). We also asked them to choose the statement that best described their relationship to writing (e.g. “I hate to write because I’m not good at it,” etc.). Then, in our interviews, we invited participants to describe their confidence in writing and to consider why they felt the way they did.


First, let’s take a look at how students responded to the survey, by focusing on the students who participated in Wave 1. Remember that R1 = late September/early October, R2 = December; and R3 = late March/early April. The graph below tells us two things: students were generally at least moderately confident when they started at Wesleyan and they became more confident over the course of their first academic year. We can see this shift by focusing on the bell curve formed by the orange bars, which represents Round 3, and which skews more to the right than the curves formed by the blue and green bars representing Rounds 1 and 2.

Now, let’s focus on students whose confidence in the interviews appeared to be moderate when they first interviewed with us. In my mind, students whose opinions are moderate:

  • Might be those who are least likely to take intentional actions to find writing support because they don’t have strong opinions about needing support or are positive that they don’t need it. – OR –
  • Might be most likely to take intentional actions to find writing support because their moderate confidence means they have some doubt about their skills, but enough confidence to feel comfortable reaching out to others.

How does moderate confidence emerge in our Wesleyan students? I see a couple of patterns in the interview data.

Students feel skilled in one kind or aspect of writing, but not another.

“Writing” is not one thing, but instead many things. It is possible to be “good” at some of those things while struggling with others. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that some students are ambivalent about their writing abilities.

In fact, some students pointed out in their interviews that our survey questions forced them to put a single number on a skill in a way that forced them to smooth over the complexity of that skill.

“I definitely know that I have room for improvement because I haven’t been exposed to a whole lot of creative writing theory and stuff like that, but in terms of analysis I’m pretty comfortable.

“I’m good at grammar, sentence structure, having things make sense. It wasn’t necessarily that my paper was good, but my vocabulary and word choice and such was good.

Students have received conflicting feedback.

Students hear about their writing from many different sources, not just their teachers, but also their peers, their parents, and their guidance counselors.

They may not know how to interpret comments that conflict with one another and, understandably, they prioritize the feedback of those who are giving them a grade for their work.

“Because after receiving feedback from my professor not from peers, my peers said my writing is fine, everything is comprehensible, but my professor said something like, ‘sometimes your sentences are a little bit too long and it’s hard for the audience to get what you are trying to say.’

“I wrote a paper for one of my classes here. I did go to the tutor. And he said he thought it was good. He was great. And I got my grade back. … I mean, I got to 87, which is good, but I didn’t, but I don’t know. I guess I expected better. So I don’t really know.”

Students realize that being “skilled” in high school is not the same thing as being “skilled” in college.

Not surprisingly, some students felt confident about their writing in high school but wondered whether their writing would meet Wesleyan standards, recognizing that they were now smaller fish in a bigger pond.

Meanwhile, other students recognized that the kind of writing to which they had been exposed in high school, and the way they had been exposed to it, provided them with only a limited view of what good writing is and how best to accomplish it.

I’ve read a lot of my classmates’ writing on little blog posts and stuff. There is a high caliber at Wesleyan in general that I feel like I’ll have trouble meeting.

I’m confident in my ability to check off the boxes that professors will have because I got good at just knowing what teachers would want, I think. But, I’m not as confident in my own creations of it. I’m confident I’ll get a good grade but I’m not confident that all the time I’ll be happy with it.


First, might we interpret these “moderately confident” students as having the healthiest attitude in regards to writing? Is their acknowledgment that they have places where they can improve, mixed with their belief that they do some part of writing well, what produces the lifelong learners we hope to share at a liberal arts institution?

Second, these students clearly received “indicators” of writing ability from a variety of sources, not just different people in different positions, but also test scores, grades, and course placements. How should we be teaching them to interpret the variety of information they are getting about their writing? What message do we want them to receive about seeking feedback from a variety of sources?

Third, it looks like these “moderately confident” students often become more confident over the course of their first year. Should this surprise us? Concern us? Do we want or expect first-year students to particularly confident at the end of their first year, when so much college and so much writing remains for them?